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BOOK REVIEW | 'Japan, Korea, and the Takeshima Secret Pact: Territorial Conflict and the Formation of the Postwar East Asian Order'

Author Daniel Roh uncloaks a secret deal between Tokyo and Seoul in the 1960s that set aside the Takeshima issue to allow the normalization of relations.



Book cover (Courtesy of JPIC International)

Daniel Roh's fascinating political and diplomatic history reads more like a novel. It has all the twists and turns and intrigues of a past generation of statesmen who recognized they needed each other. Taking advantage of the August 26, 2005 release of diplomatic records by the government of the Republic of Korea, Professor Daniel Roh has written a fascinating study about a little-known yet highly significant set of negotiations that continue to affect bilateral relations with Japan today. Namely, the Takeshima (or Dokdo) Island dispute.

Roh's volume was originally published in Japanese, and translated into English in 2024. He introduces the existence of, and negotiations behind, a secret agreement between Seoul and Tokyo over the status of the islands South Korea currently occupies and calls Dokdo. They are islands that Japan historically owned and administered, which it calls Takeshima. 

A Secret Deal

The secret agreement was reached amid the normalization talks in the first half of the 1960s. It was completed in 1965. Essentially, it recognizes the status quo of South Korea's effective control over Takeshima. That is despite Japan's continued claims to the island. Moreover, Japanese officials told their counterparts that they could "simply ignore" Japan's pro forma complaints. 

Importantly, the United States Army Garrison Yongsang "was used to make reports from Seoul" (p. 161). At the time, South Korea and Japan lacked official diplomatic relations and secure communications. In addition, there was a need to cut out certain organizations and individuals at different junctures. 

Moreover, at least one Korean secret negotiator also used Tachikawa Air Base when traveling. It would be interesting to see what US military and government officials were writing about the movements and negotiations. They were no doubt also making reports.

Leaving Disputes for the 'Next Generation'

For me, this is relevant to my work on the Senkakus issue. It helped to further confirm that, as Roh suggests, a secret agreement exists between Japan and the People's Republic of China on shelving the dispute for the "next generation" to solve. 

The "Takeshima secret pact" which this book discusses in great detail, "predated Deng [Xiaoping]'s 'solution without a solution' by thirteen years" (p. 18). However, there is also a significant difference. Compared to how the Takeshima secret agreement is described in Roh's book, the PRC tries to chip away at the status quo on a near-daily basis.

The existence of the Takeshima secret agreement was only known by a handful of individuals at the time. However, it was suspected by some vocal politicians from the opposition in both countries.

Japan's likely use of secret agreements can be seen not only in territorial matters but security ones as well. For example, as I demonstrated in my book, Iwo Jima and the Bonin Islands in US-Japanese Relations: American Strategy, Japanese Territory, and the Islanders In-between (Marine Corps University Press, 2014, Chapter 8), Japan and the United States came to an understanding in June 1968. 

That agreement is still secret at the time of this writing. It is about the reintroduction of nuclear weapons into Ogasawara in the event of a crisis. This agreement predated a similar one (now public knowledge) for Okinawa agreed to in 1969 It is this agreement that permitted the reversion of Okinawa in 1972.

Takeshima has been illegally occupied by South Korea since the end of the Allied Occupation, just before Japan regained its independence after WWII. (© Sankei)

An Academic Approach

Roh's research is thorough, and his examination of the documents and people involved is easy to follow. He goes into detail about the personalities involved and the dynamics at play. His perspective reaches domestic, bilateral, and on occasion regional interests. 

He also introduced the various organizations that had an interest in the outcome of the talks and their motivations. Furthermore, Roh conducted interviews that brought to light much of this unknown history. He credits this to the success of his storytelling (p. 214). An excellent translation by Marie Speed makes the book easy to read, too.

There are some factual mistakes, unanswered questions, and possible alternative explanations that were not pursued in the book. However, these do not take away from the quality of the scholarship.

Organizing the Topics

The book is divided into seven chapters, including a detailed prologue and a moving epilogue. It includes a helpful list of key personnel (pp. 9-11), a chart of the seven rounds of talks with the main agenda items and chief delegates (p. 14), and a chronology of developments related to the Takeshima issue (pp. 218-221). 

It also includes a map of the region with lines delineating key decisions and agreements that affect the status of Takeshima (pp. 12-13).

Following the Prologue, "How Was the "Solution without a Solution" Reached?", Chapters 1 (The Years at Sea), 2 (The Japan Diplomacy of Uncle and Nephew), 3 (The New Japan-ROK Lobby), and 4 (The Takeshima Secret Pact) discuss the history of the bilateral talks and personalities involved. 

A Short-Term Deal Setting Aside the Dispute

Roh makes clear his book is not about the ownership of Takeshima. Both sides have their respective arguments on sovereignty. (In the opinion of this writer, Japan's case is far more convincing, as I have written elsewhere. See Robert D Eldridge, "Returning Takeshima is the First Step to Better Relations with Japan," JAPAN Forward, January 18, 2022. 

Instead, he describes the personal relations and bilateral diplomacy that allowed the two countries to postpone a final decision on the status of Takeshima. In turn, that allowed normalization of relations through the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. 

In Chapter 5 (Two Losses) and the Epilogue (How Can We Take Up the Wisdom of Our Predecessors?), he laments the passing or retirement of "chivalry-based" (p. 208) personal relations. These, he argues, made up the handful of statesmen dealing with the normalization of bilateral relations and their confidantes. 

Collapse of Personal Relationships

He observes that the populist Kim Young-sam presidency in South Korea in 1993 failed to honor the Takeshima secret pact. Perhaps that was because it was a populist government. Or maybe it was unaware of the existence of the secret pact. After all, the Korean copy was burned following one of the domestic political upheavals in the 1980s (p. 187). 

The collapse of personal relations and the destruction of the document represent the "two losses" found in the chapter title.

Prime Minister Kishida and South Korean President Yoon arrive at a meeting in Seoul on May 27. (Pool photo)

I highly recommend this book to those interested in modern Korean and Japanese history, Northeast Asian affairs, and territorial disputes. The author is pessimistic about the future. Nevertheless, I finished it with some optimism about Japan-Korea relations, knowing the hard work that went into their bilateral treaty that will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2025.

About the Book:

Title: Japan, Korea, and the Takeshima Secret Pact: Territorial Conflict and the Formation of the Postwar East Asian Order

Author: Daniel Roh (translated by Marie Speed)  

Publisher: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (March 2024) 

Publishing Date: March 2024

ISBN: 978-4-86658-249-8 (hardcover), 978-4-86658-250-4 (e-book)  

Format: Hardcover, 243 pages. ¥4300 JPY + tax 

For further information: Or to purchase, see the publisher's homepage 


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge, PhD
Dr Eldridge is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan, author of numerous books on Japanese political and diplomatic history, and a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University.